Two Different Worlds?

It has become commonplace to complain that Americans are living in different realities–to respond to statements or opinions that seem particularly bizarre with some version of Barney Frank’s famous line, “on what planet do you spend most of your time?” But what if that isn’t hyperbole? What if Red and Blue Americans really are occupying different worlds?

What if America is actually going through some sort of “virtual” replay of the civil war?

My husband and I eat breakfast at a local coffee shop most mornings with a friend who shares our political obsessions. ¬†Yesterday, during a breakfast discussion about the embarrassing series of congressional fiascos that finally led to last minute legislation avoiding–or at least postponing–the fiscal cliff, my husband shook his head in wonder: as he noted, Congress had set this scenario up and thus seen it coming for at least 18 months during which it had done absolutely nothing. Why? It seemed incomprehensible.

Our friend offered his theory: The Republicans swept into office in 2010, convinced they would retake both the Senate and the White House in 2012. During the campaign, they continued to believe that Romney would win the election, and that they would then have the opportunity and power to fashion their own “fix” of the impending sequester, probably along the lines of the Ryan budget. When Romney lost, and the Senate became even more firmly Democratic, they were stunned. They hadn’t prepared for that eventuality, and they’re still trying to find their bearings.

In the aftermath, the party’s internal fissures have also become more pronounced.¬†At this point, the GOP is like a fish out of water, flopping frantically this way and that on the floor.

I would dismiss my friend’s explanation as utterly fanciful if there were not so many emerging reports that support it. Somehow, despite all of the data and polling and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, despite Nate Silver, a significant number of Republican political figures managed to convince themselves that up was down, blue was red, and America would never re-elect that black guy, especially in a sour economy. When Obama won, they were genuinely shocked–and unprepared to participate in divided government.

I was still mulling over this increasingly plausible explanation when I got to the gym, climbed on the treadmill, and turned on the television. There was Chuck Todd in front of a chart showing the massive increase in the number of single-party states–states where one party or the other controls both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion. (Indiana, as we know, is one of those states.) There are exceptions, but most of the Republican-dominated states are in the old South (i.e., the Confederacy); most of the Democratic-dominated states are in the Northeast and on the west coast.

Representatives elected from lopsidedly one-party states don’t worry about challenges from the opposing party; they worry about primaries. So the Republicans pander to the rabid rightwing base of their party, and the Democrats play to the intransigent left of theirs. As the number of “safe states” multiplies, so does the number of unyielding, uncompromising ideologues.

Even in the absence of that political calculus, however, when people come from an environment that is dominated by a particular political philosophy, it takes effort to seek out and understand competing points of view. Such environments reinforce those “bubbles” we create by our media habits and friendship choices. Pretty soon, other perspectives seem fanciful and/or deluded, and we lose our ability to function within them.

The question is, how do we engage in anything remotely like self-government under these circumstances?


  1. I tend ot think that it will be like this for some time, but the nation’s rapidly changing demographics may have a huge impact. If, as George Will noted, the anti gay-marriage lobby is dying out, their replacements will hopefully be more moderate across the board. After growing up and spending their young adulthoods observing the rampant dysfunction, one can hope.

    To address your comment abut a virtual Civil War? I believe that you are correct there and just as in the original Civil War there will be those who will deny their loss 100+ years later.

  2. Compromise and middle of the road gets a lot of positive press right now. I would HOPE that my side does NOT compromise on my rights as a human being. One side does NOT think urban folks should have equal voting rights. The compromise position is ??? One side thinks gay people should NOT have equal civil rights. The compromise position is ??? One side think THEIR God created our world very recently and that modern science is nonsense. They think THEIR religion should be taught to our SCIENCE. The compromise position is ??? What would the compromise position have been on slavery? These are the questions that come to mind when compromise is presented as the grand solution. If the argument is 29% Tax VS a 27% tax then I can see how we compromise at 28%. It is not always that obvious to me. I wish our country well as we try to move forward. It is not going to be easy. I just pray it is peaceful.

  3. My 54 yr old brother suddenly stopped calling my Mother in October. He had created this habit of calling and checking in with her every single week for 30 yrs. She called him and left messages, she typed emails with no response until mid-November when she finally got fed up. Tough love. She sent him a scathing email telling him to man-up about his silence. He finally wrote back to her a week before Thanksgiving and said he KNEW she had voted for that jerk (President) and he couldn’t talk to her right now. It was the President’s fault that he was nearly homeless (not his own making or Congress) because he worked in the MIC and was probably going to lose his job (again!).

    My 80 yr old Mother was beside herself in grief because her beloved good son was mad at her for voting for someone he didn’t like. She’s always been liberal but never allowed politics to be discussed and never told him who she voted for. My other brother and I are furious with this one and can’t forgive him for hurting her because he disagrees with her political views. This sad brother of mine went the whole holiday season never once checking in or calling her. And he’s a church going Catholic!

    Our family is divided and I blame my brother for listening to Rush Limbaugh every day, Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and the whole Fox Spews network for corrupting my brother’s political views. I refuse to contact him (even to yell at him) until he comes to his senses and apologizes to Mother. Why is it the ones that benefit most by government programs (like the Military Industrial Complex) are the ones so against government spending and don’t see that their livelihoods depend on that spending? He’s absolutely clueless.

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